- Press Release
- Feb 5, 2023
Statement of Senator Bill Nelson Senate Space Roundtable: “ISS Cost Overruns: A Spectrum of Solutions”
Thank you for that wonderful introduction. I am thrilled to be at my first senate space roundtable. I would like to express my thanks to Marc Schlather and his organization for facilitating this event, and to the presenters for the time you have put into preparing for today’s discussions.
I especially appreciate the participation of my former colleagues in the House: Ralph Hall – current ranking member on the science committee and fellow founding member of the “blue dogs” – and Dana Rohrabacher – one of my successors as chair of the space subcommittee and a fellow space enthusiast.
As a member of the House for 12 years, representing the space coast of Florida, I had the honor of serving as a member of the science, space and technology committee, and ultimately as chair of the space subcommittee. In that role, as most of you know, I had the privilege of flying on the space shuttle. I also had the responsibility of steering congressional oversight of NASA, including chairing many hearings following the Challenger disaster. This was a pivotal moment in human kind’s spacefaring history, and this experience taught me many lessons about not only the technical difficulties, but also the dangers involved in coordinating and managing our nation’s civil space program.
Just a few months ago, I was offered a seat on the prestigious senate commerce committee, and I am beginning to pick up where I left off in helping to oversee our space efforts. My first effort was to work with chairman Wyden in coordinating a hearing on shuttle safety. Earlier this month, the science, technology, and space subcommittee heard alarming testimony from five expert witnesses – from inside and outside of NASA – who all agreed that the agency has reached the limit in its abilities to economize. Without additional funds above the administration’s proposal, witnesses stated NASA will not be able to continue critically important safety upgrades to the shuttle fleet, improvements congress initiated in fiscal year 2000. In order to accommodate inadequate funding levels, NASA management has chosen to abrogate its commitment to congress to upgrade the shuttle orbiters by canceling, deferring or “stretching-out” planned projects. At the same time, the agency has yet to request funds to make improvements to its Apollo-era ground infrastructure, which literally is falling apart. Witnesses testified that shuttle safety upgrades and ground infrastructure improvements are needed if the United States is to keep flying without jeopardizing the safety of our astronauts.
I have come to believe that the shuttle program is being penalized, despite its outstanding performance, in order to conform to a budget strategy that is dangerously inadequate to ensure safety in America’s human space flight program. In fact, NASA’s budget is literally being starved. The agency is projecting a flat-line budget through fiscal year 2006 – this virtually is a going-out-of-business plan.
At the same time, NASA is helping to build a space station: a multi-national effort, that by the time it is completed will weigh about a million pounds, measure the length of a football field, and orbit at 220 nautical miles above the earth.
The international space station is one of the largest and most complex international technological projects in history. It is being built for many reasons, not the least of which is to support research activities in such diverse fields as biology, biomedical science, space technology, earth science, high-energy physics, and materials and combustion science. In this laboratory of the heavens, scientists will conduct research in tissue growth, looking at the causes of cancers and potential medical treatments. They will investigate new drugs, and develop a whole new understanding of the building blocks of life. Using the microgravity environment of space, our industries will develop new advanced materials that may lead to stronger, lighter metals and more powerful computer chips. The station will also house experiments in combustion science, that could lead to reduced emissions from power plants and automobiles, saving consumers billions of dollars.
And these are just a few of the possibilities.
But, we’ve got a problem on our hands: The space station is now projected to cost upwards of $5 billion dollars more than projected just a few months ago.
Within a year, station will be conducting research on a constantly orbiting basis. I believe it is absolutely crucial that full funding for Station be maintained at this critical juncture. While the recently announced ISS cost increases are disturbing, and possibly suggest an underlying problem with the management or execution of this program, I know that we must complete this project: it is an investment in our children’s future.
If we are going to complete this project, we’ve got to find the money somewhere. However, funding these cost overruns without adding more money to NASA’s budget will require cutting many of NASA’s programs, and possibly endangering the future viability of the station itself. At the same time, there are many other worthwhile projects being conducted at NASA – that have nothing to do with the space station – such as research in extra-galactic astronomy using the Hubble space telescope, global climate change research by remotely sensing the earth, and launch technology development that could decrease the cost of getting to space by a factor of 10 or more. Not to mention the other human space flight programs impacted by station cost overruns. As I already said, cuts to the space shuttle account, in particular, may be endangering the lives of our astronauts, while they are endeavoring to complete construction of the station itself.
We have to continue supporting these and other projects, but where will all the money come from? Hopefully, some of the discussion today will help us find some answers to this perplexing problem.
I just want to take a moment to say that we considered canceling or postponing today’s event in light of the tragic events of September 11th. However, I decided that we should go ahead and have this discussion today, because I believe that it is important that we continue with the work at hand.
To some, the discussions today seem to pale in importance compared to the events of September 11th. I agree that congress’s greatest efforts right should center around taking care of those impacted by the immense tragedy of those terrorist events, recovering – economically, physically, and psychologically – from those events, and preventing such events from ever occurring within our national boundaries again.
At the same time, I believe that the moment we stop working on other issues of importance to our nation is the moment when the terrorists win. The space station is part of our nation’s future. We have to continue to look ahead, to find the means to cure diseases, develop advanced materials, and engineer new means of communications. The space station will help us in those efforts. We have to continue to work on this project.
And, given the budget situation facing us today, we may have to find solutions to those funding problems by looking at new policy options. For that reason, I look forward to the hearing the results of the discussions today.
Thank you all for attending.